David Hallac, Superintendent
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
1401 National Park Drive
Manteo, NC 27954
Re: Environmental Assessment/Assessment of Effect for the Review and Adjustment of Wildlife Protection Buffers
Dear Superintendent Hallac:
I am writing to you on behalf of over 1,070 members of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees (Coalition), who collectively represent more than 30,000 years of national park management experience. The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System. We participated in the ORV negotiated rulemaking advisory committee at Cape Hatteras National Seashore (Seashore) from 2007 to 2009 and have continued to be actively involved in the issue through the public comment process.
The purpose of the proposed action is to review and modify, as appropriate, wildlife buffers necessary to protect a species, and to designate pedestrian and vehicle corridors around areas of the Seashore closed because of wildlife buffers, as required by the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (the Act). We submit the following comments regarding Alternative B, the National Park Service (NPS) Preferred Alternative, as it is described in the environmental assessment (EA).
For the most part, the wildlife protection buffer adjustments that NPS proposes in Alternative B appear to be adequately supported by the references cited. The EA indicates that the reduction in size of the existing standard buffers will likely result in increased disturbance to nesting wildlife. Though not explicitly stated in the EA, with the increased disturbance that is expected to occur under Alternative B there will also be a greater risk to wildlife of “take” as defined under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act. In order to comply with the NPS Organic Act’s conservation mandate, it is imperative that the NPS carefully monitor and document the results of all reduced buffers and proposed ORV pass-through corridors, and be prepared to reinstate larger, more effective buffers or close corridors, if needed and as soon as needed. For this reason, we strongly support the intensive monitoring proposed for some of the actions listed under Alternative B. However, we are concerned about several proposed actions that include insufficient buffer size or insufficient monitoring for the proposed buffer size and will focus our comments below on these concerns.
1) Reduced ORV Buffer for Unfledged Piping Plover (PIPL) Chicks: Alternative B proposes to reduce the ORV buffer for unfledged piping plover (PIPL) chicks from 1,000 m to 500 m. The rationale for the proposed change, as described on page 32 of the EA, is based, in part, on data analysis showing that the mean “maximum movement” of PIPL chicks at the Seashore was 398 m during 2010-2014. This analysis reasonably justifies the reduction of the 1000 buffer to 500 m. However, a concern is that the analysis also indicates that 15% of the time chicks have moved greater than 500 m, which means that 15% percent of the time chicks could have been exposed to grave risk of take by ORVs if a 500 m buffer had been in effect during the sampling period. Given the Organic Act’s conservation mandate, we believe that risking take of a Federally-listed threatened species 15% of the time in a unit of the National Park System is an unacceptable risk.
Of even greater concern, NPS proposes to reduce the 500 m ORV buffer to only 200 m as soon as needed if the 500 m buffer would block ORV access. The rationale stated in the EA is that a 200 m buffer would be “consistent” with Appendix G of the Piping Plover Recovery Plan. However, we believe the Appendix G reference to a 200 m buffer must be interpreted in the full context of the section in which it occurs, particularly Section B below. Appendix G states that a buffer less than 1,000 m ORV buffer should be used for PIPL chicks unless there is written concurrence (by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) with a plan that:
- Provides for monitoring of all broods during the chick-rearing phase of the breeding season and specifies the frequency of monitoring.
- Specifies the minimum size of vehicle-free areas to be established in the vicinity of unfledged broods based on the mobility of broods observed on the site in past years (emphasis added) and on the frequency of monitoring. Unless substantial data from past years (emphasis added) show that broods on a site stay very close to their nest locations, vehicle-free areas should extend at least 200 meters on each side of the nest site during the first week following hatching (emphasis added).
With a documented mean maximum chick movement of 398 m at the Seashore, the proposed 200 m buffer is clearly inadequate. The appropriate ORV buffer for PIPL chicks should, in fact, be based on the Seashore’s substantial data from past years. We have already expressed concern above the risk to chicks 15% of the time if a 500 m buffer were used. Presumably, if a buffer of only 200 m were to be used, an even greater percentage of the time chicks would be at risk, making the level of risk even more unacceptable. As part of the analysis, NPS should provide the data, if available, for what percentage of the time chicks with a maximum movement of between 200 – 499 m would be at risk
Despite the above concerns, there may be a valid basis for reducing the 500 m buffer to 200 m at some point after PIPL chicks have hatched. There are numerous observations of PIPL chick movements at CAHA documented in the annual reports for 2006-2014 that strongly suggest that PIPL chicks tend to make their maximum movement at CAHA within a few days of hatching, typically when they make their initial move from the nest to a distant foraging area. It is well documented that young, highly mobile PIPL chicks can be very difficult to see and are at grave risk when even limited ORV use occurs nearby (Melvin et al, 1994). As demonstrated at the Seashore in July 2005 (when South Beach PIPL chicks moved 0.6 mile to the eastern side of the point), PIPL chicks can move a significant distance in a short amount of time. It is unrealistic to think that even experienced monitors can ensure the safety of PIPL chicks during a maximum movement event, which seems most likely to occur in the first week after chicks hatch, when there is heavy ORV traffic typical of CAHA only 200 m away. For these reasons, we strongly recommend a 7-day waiting period after PIPL chicks have hatched before reducing the 500 m to 200 m. This would be consistent with the Appendix G recommendation of using a more protective buffer during the first week following hatching, and would greatly reduce the risk of take caused by ORVs for chicks whose maximum movement within the first week is 200 m or greater.
2) ORV pass-through corridor for American oystercatcher (AMOY) nests: Alternative B also proposes to reduce the ORV buffer for AMOY nests from 150 m to 25 m when needed to allow an ORV pass-through corridor at the waterline. Page 73 of the EA states that “preliminary data based on 7 nesting pairs suggests that driving in front of American oystercatcher nests did not affect American oystercatcher incubation behavior and physiology due to experiencing vehicular traffic (Simons et al. 2015).” This is a very small sample size on which to base the proposed change. Not mentioned in the EA are the many references in AMOY literature and field observations regarding the variability in reaction (i.e., sensitivity) to disturbance of individual AMOY. Given this variability, it is conceivable, perhaps even likely, that under some circumstances or with some birds a 25 m buffer will be insufficient to prevent repeated disturbance of (some) nesting AMOY. Based on the nest monitoring frequency described in Table 10-1 of the ORV management plan, which would be carried forward under Alternative B, all AMOY nests would continue to be monitored once a day. For nests with a reduced buffer that could be as small as 25 m, this minimal level of monitoring may be insufficient to detect repeated disturbance of the nesting AMOY.
A second concern related to the proposed once-daily frequency of AMOY nest monitoring is what predictably could happen if AMOY chicks hatch while an ORV pass-through corridor with a reduced buffer is in effect. Page 32 of the EA reports that “observations of unfledged chick movement show that chicks may move large distances soon after hatching (CAHA unpublished data).” With the proposed 25 m buffer, early detection of eggs hatching is essential to ensure the safety of newly hatched AMOY chicks when ORV traffic is allowed so close to the nest. The Seashore has previously experienced the reality that newly hatched AMOY chicks are in immediate danger if there is any delay in expanding a small nest buffer into a full-sized chick buffer (Hatteras spit incident, May 2006, 2 chicks died). To proceed with the proposed 25 m buffer to allow ORV corridors without addressing the possibility, perhaps even likelihood, of similar incident(s) occurring would be irresponsible.
For the reasons stated above, we strongly recommend that NPS provide increased monitoring at any AMOY nest with a reduced buffer that allows an ORV pass-through corridor. We recommend that monitoring at such nests occur at least twice daily, in the morning and late afternoon, for a period of at least 30 minutes each and for as long as the reduced buffer and ORV corridor are in effect. The increased monitoring will better enable NPS to observe and document whether passing vehicles disturb the nesting AMOY and will increase the chances of early detection of eggs hatching so that the 200 m unfledged chick buffer can be installed as soon as possible in order to protect mobile AMOY chicks from ORVs.
3) Lastly, we offer a comment regarding the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission (NCWRC) letter in Appendix C of the EA, which is at odds with a number of the actions proposed by NPS in Alternative B. It is noteworthy that NCWRC continues to align its comments with those of the ORV groups, as it did during the ORV management planning process. While it important for NPS to maintain good relationships with State wildlife agencies and fully consider their advice on park management issues, it is also important to remember that NCWRC has no direct responsibility for wildlife management at the Seashore and does not operate under a State standard equivalent to the conservation mandate of the NPS Organic Act. Regardless of how NCWRC would manage the same species on State lands, NPS is obligated under its own laws and policies to manage wildlife on park lands in such a manner that “conservation is to be predominant.”
In closing, we appreciate that the Seashore is making a good faith effort to not only comply with the 2014 Act, but also to comply with other applicable laws. We believe that much, but not all (as identified above), of what has been proposed is adequately justified and consistent with NPS laws, regulations, and policies. Thank you for this opportunity to comment.